WASHINGTON — NBC's Tim Russert deflected criticism of his ethics and credibility as he completed a heated second day of cross-examination Thursday in the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter Libby.
Russert, who testified that he never discussed outed CIA operative Valerie Plame with Libby, was the final prosecution witness before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald rested his three-week perjury and obstruction case. Libby's attorneys will begin calling witnesses Monday.
The journalist was subjected to the kind of interrogation he usually gives guests on his Sunday television show "Meet the Press," as attorneys flashed excerpts of his previous statements on a video monitor and asked him to explain inconsistencies.
Avoiding the traps
A law school graduate, Russert avoided several traps defense attorneys laid before him. He seemed uncomfortable at times, however, as they asked him to explain why he willingly told an FBI agent about a July 2003 conversation with Libby, then gave a sworn statement saying he would not testify about that conversation because it was confidential.
"Did you disclose in the affidavit to the court that you had already disclosed the contents of your conversation with Mr. Libby," asked Theodore Wells, one of Libby's attorneys.
"As I've said, sir, ... " Russert began.
"It's a yes or no question," Wells interrupted.
"I'd like to answer it to the best of my ability," Russert said.
"This is a very simple question. Either it's in the affidavit or it's not," Wells asked. "Did you disclose to the court that you had already communicated to the FBI the fact that you had communicated with Mr. Libby?"
"No," Russert said.
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Wells wants to cast Russert as someone who cannot be believed, who publicly championed the sanctity of off-the-record conversations but privately revealed that information to investigators. Russert said he viewed the FBI conversation and testimony to prosecutors differently.
Russert's credibility is under fire because he and Libby tell very different stories about a July 2003 phone call that is at the heart of the case. The question of which to believe could be a critical jury room issue.
Both men agree that Libby called Russert to complain about a colleague's news coverage. Libby says at the end of the call, Russert told him "all the reporters know" that Plame, the wife of a prominent war critic, worked for the CIA. Russert testified that part of the conversation never occurred.
"That would be impossible," Russert testified Wednesday. "I didn't know who that person was until several days later."
Libby subsequently repeated the information about Plame to other journalists, always with the caveat that he had heard it from reporters, he has said. Prosecutors say Libby concocted the Russert conversation to shield him from prosecution for revealing classified information from government sources.
Mitchell evidence denied
Libby's attorneys say Russert knew about Plame from colleagues David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell. Mitchell said in an interview that she and other reporters knew Plame worked for the CIA but she later recanted that statement. Wells had hoped to play clips of Mitchell discussing her statements on the Don Imus morning show on MSNBC.
Fitzgerald successfully argued that the tapes not be played.
"We might as well take 'Wigmore on Evidence' and replace it with 'Imus on Evidence,'" Fitzgerald said, referencing the classic treatise on evidentiary law. "There's no Imus exception to the hearsay rule. This has no business in a federal court."
Wells has questioned Russert about other phone conversations he couldn't remember, inconsistencies between his current account and FBI notes of an agent's original interview with him, and the likelihood that he would've let such a high-ranking official off the phone without fishing for some news.
‘Bad blood’ between Libby and NBC?
Wells attempted to suggest that there was "bad blood" between Libby and NBC News, trying to imply that Russert had some personal animosity toward Libby and was "elated" when Libby was indicted.
Wells played a tape in court of Russert's on-air interview with radio personality Don Imus on the morning of Oct. 28, the same day charges were expected to be announced against Libby.
"It was like Christmas Eve here last night," Russert joked, as he told Imus about the much-anticipated results of a CIA leak investigation that Fitzgerald was expected to announce later that afternoon. "Santa Claus is coming tomorrow. Surprises! What's going to be under the tree?"
But during follow-up questioning by Fitzgerald, Russert said he was eager for the story to unfold like any big news event.
"Did you take joy in Mr. Libby's indictment?" Fitzgerald asked.
"No, not at all," Russert said. "And I don't take joy in being here."
The defense also read a transcript from that same day's broadcast of the "Today Show," when Russert told then-host Katie Couric about the possibility that an indictment could be forthcoming against Libby.
"It's huge, Katie," Russert said on the broadcast. "This is the first time in 130 years that a sitting White House official would come under indictment."
Under cross-examination from Wells, Russert said he couldn't remember the "Today" show conversation.
"Sir, I'm on television a lot," he said. "This one I just don't remember."
Continuing the suggestion that there was an atmosphere of "bad blood" between NBC and Libby, Wells read a comment by Tom Brokaw, the former anchor of NBC “Nightly News.”
Brokaw, according to Wells, said that the fallout from the leaking of Valerie Plame Wilson's name amounted to "the clumsiest case of lying" that he had ever seen.
Libby's attorneys also will try to undercut the credibility of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who testified that Libby revealed Plame's identity to her. Defense attorney William Jeffress said he intends to call Miller's former boss, Times managing editor Jill Abramson, to try to refute Miller and question her credibility.
One of the nation's most familiar "prosecutors" showed in Libby's camp in court Thursday.
But it was a "prosecutor" who only plays one on TV.
Joining Libby's public relations person, Barbara Comstock, in the public gallery was former Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson, who plays a New York City prosecutor on the NBC series "Law and Order." He came to listen while Russert was cross examined by defense attorney Theodore Wells.
At one point, Libby's wife, Harriet Grant, went back and sat beside Thompson. They hugged, laughed and chatted for a few minutes before she returned to her seat in the front row.
Asked why he came Thompson said, "I'm a friend of Scooter Libby and his family."
During a late-morning break, Libby and Thompson shook hands in the hallway and went into a private conference room to chat. Thompson did not return for the conclusion of the morning session.
The former senator is on the steering committee of the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Fund Trust, an organization that set out to raise more than $5 million to help finance Libby's defense.
Thompson, who declined to answer more questions Thursday, hosted a fundraiser at his northern Virginia home last May to raise money for Libby's defense fund.
The Associated Press and NBC’s Joel Seidman contributed to this story.